The Three Big Questions

As soon as possible in Act I, but definitely before Act I ends, you must pose three Big Questions:

  1. What is the villain trying to do? Initially, this will be a mystery but as your story unfolds, this will become clearer.
  2. What does the hero want emotionally? This can be something abstract.
  3. What does the hero want physically? This is the concrete image of the emotional goal.

In “48 Hours,” the villain breaks out of prison and eventually wants to get the money from a drug deal. The hero’s physical goal is to catch the villain. Much less emphasized is his emotional goal, which is to eventually trust Eddie Murphy.

In “Die Hard,” the villain wants to rob a corporate safe and escape by killing all the hostages. The hero’s emotional goal is to get back with his wife and his physical goal is to defeat the terrorists who are holding his wife hostage.

The hero’s physical goal is a direct result of the villain’s pursuit of a goal.

In “Avatar,” the villain’s goal is to get at the mineral riches of the alien planet by wiping out the aliens. The hero’s physical goal is to get enough money to have an operation to restore his legs so he can walk again. His emotional goal is to be accepted into society once more, which he feels he can’t do if he’s paralyzed in a wheelchair.

The villain has a physical goal that creates the physical goal to help the hero achieve his emotional goal. So by the end of Act I, the audience should know what the hero wants (love in “Home Alone” or in any romantic comedy), have a rough idea what the villain wants, and then see how the villain’s goal creates the physical goal to help the hero achieve his emotional goal.

Stories that lack these three Big Questions will feel incomplete and boring somehow. If you don’t know what the hero wants, everything seems meaningless. If you don’t know what the villain wants, the actions of the hero seem pointless. If you don’t know how the hero can achieve his emotional goal through fighting the villain’s goal, the story will feel disjointed.

Watch a bad movie and chances are good that one of these three Big Questions are missing or unclear by the end of Act I. Ideally, you should provide this information within the first 15 minutes to grab your audience right from the start.

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